The Oculus Rift offers the ability to discover new experiences from the comfort of your own chair.
Whether it’s flight, the terror of a haunted house or the thrills of a high speed race, the possibilities are endless. With full 3D imagery and head tracking, never before have we been able to immerse ourselves in quite this way.
However, one team from the Institute for Design Research at the Zurich University of the Arts has taken the idea of immersion to new levels. In collaboration with the BirdLife-Naturzentrum Neeracherried, they’re simulating the experience of flight through the body of a Red Kite bird of prey, as it soars high above the virtual landscape of Neeracherriedm with its rolling hills, forests and farmyards. Not only have they taken the Oculus Rift headset and created a 3D environment, but they’ve also designed and crafted a rig that offers physical feedback and the sense of smell.
The team of four is led by lecturer Max Rheiner. Alongside him are MA students Fabian Troxler, Thomas Erdin and workshop manager Thomas Tobler. Together, they’ve hand-built a custom platform called the Birdly, which participants lay upon, their arms spread out like a bird and head facing towards a wind machine, which changes the intensity of air flow in relation to the speed of the bird.
The Birdly measures the movements of the participant using sensory-motors, with each being tied to the virtual wing of the Red Kite. As the player pushes down using their left arm, in-game the left wing of the bird lowers, changing the direction of its flight path. If the player chooses to flap their arms, the Red Kite will correspond, taking the player higher into the air. As the participant passes over woodlands and scenery they smell the scent of a forest, soil and other natural odours. This is simply achieved by placing objects corresponding to the virtual image behind the wind machine. Combined with the tilting of the rig, body movements and full head tracking offered by the Rift, players feel as though they are physically embodying a Red Kite.
We spoke briefly to Max Rheiner to discover more about the project:
How did the team come up with the idea of simulating bird flight?
Max: The birdlife organisation zurich contacted me because they were looking for projects for their anniversary exhibition. Their topic was the fascination of the bird flight. At the university I teach embodied interaction, and recently I did some work in the field of aviation, therefore I’m always interested to explore new kinds of body interfaces and flying object. So we developed together the concept that we could build an immersive full body installation which puts the visitors into the place of a bird.
What feedback have you had from people who have tried the experience?
Max: We had a lot of people who analyzed and intellectualized the concept before they tried it out. The before after effect was quite entertaining. Afterwards they only talked about the experience they just witnessed. But generally the response was very encouraging, of course we just use the DK1, so the image quality isn’t that great, but the fully body feedback was what the people really excited, how all the systems(HMD, 3DOF platform, wind feedback, etc.) play together and enhance the immersion.
Do you have any plans to demo the system at public events?
Max: At the moment I’m organizing two exhibitions. One in San Francisco and the other one in Vancouver BC, but both are not 100% sure. They should be this year in late summer if everything works out.
Do you have any plans to create more flight demos?
Max: Of course. There are several directions, from different modes of flying to other environments. But first we will try to use 3d City maps, maybe see the world as a pigeon!
The Birdly platform echoes the design of the first Wright brothers plane, with its wooden structure, wiring and human pilot. Similarly, it’s an experiment into the possibility of human flight, but this time in a virtual world where the participant takes on the body of a wild animal.
The team hasn’t quite perfected the Birdly setup quite yet. They admit that the platform can sometimes struggle to perfectly match the virtual environment in the Oculus Rift, creating a sense of motion sickness in the player, but they’re making good progress and hope to perfect it soon. Nevertheless, this is a promising experiment in immersion and virtual reality.
You can see more videos and imagery at the team’s website here.